Born in France in 1802, he was given a fine education by the Basilian fathers and was a distinguished student. Against his father’s wishes, he joined the seminary and was ordained in 1825. His talents and his actions in France lead to frequent offers of honours and promotions, all of which he declined. Eventually, he travelled to Canada to avoid promotion by partaking in missionary work.
During his time in Montreal Charbonnel was again offered promotion, and again he declined. He also tended to the famine poor that flooded that city, and came to know the Irish Catholics well. While tending them Charbonnel, like Michael Power, contracted Typhus, but unlike Power he survived, although he was forced by the illness to return to France to convalesce.
While in France Charbonnel accepted a post as Professor of Philosophy and was very well liked by his students. However, events were brewing that would bring him back to North America, a land he seemed to deeply loathe.
After Power’s death a scramble began to find a new bishop for Toronto. It was quickly deemed that no priest in the diocese was suited to be bishop. The other Canadian Bishops, mainly French based in Quebec, in consultation with the bishop of Kingston, drew up a terna, a list of three names of men suited for the office. The terna is a ranked list, ordered dignissimus, dignior, dignus, or in English, most dignified, very dignified, and dignified. The French bishops remembered the humble and talented Charbonnel, the good work he did with the Irish of ’47, and thought he would make an excellent bishop. However, there was some concern that perhaps an Anglophone would be a better choice for the bishop of Toronto. Thus, the names on the list, in order, were John Larkin, SJ, Charbonnel, and Angus Macdonnell, our old friend and former pastor of St Paul’s.
As hard as Charbonnel worked to avoid being named bishop, John Larkin would that much harder. The Canadian bishops were unanimous that Larkin would be the finest choice for bishop. The only one to disagree with that assessment was Larkin himself. He refused every offer to take over Power’s empty seat, and went so far as to stop opening mail from Rome. When it became apparent that Larkin could not be moved, (thus adding another chapter to the “what if…?” alternative history of the diocese), and as the situation in Toronto got worse for lack of a bishop, Rome moved to the second name on the list.
Charbonnel still did not wish to be made a bishop. He travelled to Rome to plead his incapacity, claiming to be still recovering from Typhus. Pope Pius the Ninth responded by personally bestowing Episcopal dignity upon Charbonnel on 26th May, 1850, and then ordered him onto the next ship heading West.
Charbonnel arrived in Toronto that September, and one of his first actions in his attempt to provide leadership and unity to the disorganized Toronto diocese was to preach a sermon to the Irish laity in the unfinished St Michael’s Cathedral. In his sermon, entitled “The Duties of the Good Shepherd”, he asked them to excuse his poor English, told the people that he considered himself unfit to lead, and had only come on the express order of the Holy Father. He spoke of his labour in Montreal, and how he had contracted the disease and thought himself to be on his deathbed, but providence’s divine and invisible hand had other plans for him. Now, as Chief Pastor, he was ready to risk everything, including life itself for his flock. As proof of his entire devotion to his flock, he told the people he had liquidated his entire paternal estate, and was handing it over to help pay off the debt of the Cathedral, and to be put to whatever other necessary works were to be found in the diocese, and kept nothing for himself. He finished by expressing a wish to visit them all, especially the poor, and to aid them if at all possible.
From his friends in his old diocese and family in France, Charbonnel collected more money. He established the Dime to further pay for the Cathedral. He instituted strict accounting practices across the diocese to get their affairs in order. He kept strict records of Marriages and Baptisms. In 1852 he toured the diocese to better ascertain the needs of his flock. He realized the diocese was geographically too large and diverse to be controlled from one place, and successfully lobbied to have the diocese divided into three, leading to the creation of the Hamilton and London diocese. He established seminaries to train priests who could eventually staff the new parishes he had built whenever feasible, and thus under Charbonnel the parishes of St Mary’s, St Joseph and St Basil’s are created, thus more than doubling the number of Catholic churches in Toronto, to five.
Charbonnel also began to bring in Catholic religious societies into the diocese. Not surprisingly, the societies he called were mainly French. By 1852 the Sisters of St Joseph, The Brothers of the Christian School and the Basilian Fathers had arrived, ready to serve the new seminary. Sisters of Loretto arrive soon after. Charbonnel also organized laymen into the St Vincent de Paul society. But more than this, he knew he had to keep his flock from being absorbed into secular society to help them perpetuate their Irish Catholic identity-the very thing that also made them outcast in the increasingly Orange city. The basis of this identity would be education, and the creation of a separate school system, where the Catholics children could study without denigration for their religion or culture.
His goal in establishing a separate school board was helped by the Act of Union of 1840. That act, which united Upper and Lower Canada into Canada East and Canada West, was originally designed to help assimilate the French Catholics of Canada East into the protestant society. Part of the laws designed to achieve this goal was a few laws guaranteeing the rights of the Protestant minority in Canada east to a separate education not controlled by the Catholic French. Charbonnel insisted that the rights of the minority Protestants in Canada East applied to the minority Catholics in Canada West. It was a hard and difficult battle, and Charbonnel won. As part of this victory, Charbonnel established St Michael’s college, run by the Basilian fathers, the same who had trained Charbonnel in his youth in France. At first the college was actually run out of the Episcopal palace, until the new building and church- St Basil’s- could be constructed on their present site.
Charbonnel’s work continued, and his accomplishments are so many they cannot be contained in a small entry such as this, or even a dozen such entries. He retired from Toronto in 1860 and entered the Capuchin order. He was made archbishop of Sozopolis in 1880, and died in France in 1891.
The city has changed utterly since Charbonnel’s time, his name and presence are not always discernible at first. One visible sign that remains can be seen at the Cathedral: the three great Eastern windows were his gift to the Cathedral and Catholics of Toronto, commissioned during a trip to France taken in 1856 to garner more financial aid for his diocese. The Stations of the Cross are likewise his, from the same trip. It was on that trip that he wrote to some friends in France about his return to Toronto:
Venio de Toronto
Apud Lacum Ontario
In Populam Barbaro
which translates: I return to Toronto, on the shores of Lake Ontario, to a Barbarous People. Let us bless the Lord. It seems that while Charbonnel was loved by his flock, and while he loved them in return, he did not much like them.
He has faded from memory. Many of the institutions he brought fell apart, or lost their lustre, victims of change. He was never canonized. He did not have the distinction of being our first bishop, nor our first archbishop- that was Bishop Lynch, his successor. There are no statues raised in his honour. Yet his work in the Toronto diocese and his gifts to it are immense. Charbonnel found a diocese filled people no one wanted, and with his leadership and the structures he put in place, helped them to keep and maintain their identity as Catholics, a sacramental people. Through his efforts, Catholics steered away from assimilation and began to lift themselves out of poverty, and towards some measure of independence, and maintained their identity as Irish Catholics. If you wish to see Bishop Charbonnel’s monument, it is the diocese of Toronto itself.
It would be foolish to regard Charbonnel’s time here as a moment of uninterrupted Catholic triumphalism. Far from it. The Protestants couldn’t help but notice the increasing stature of the Catholics, and their resentment grew with every step the Catholics took. The Catholics of Toronto found themselves in an increasingly hostile city, in which they had little political power, and where their would-be protectors- the police, the fireman- were staffed almost completely by those who hated them. Toronto remained an uneasy place for Catholics.
 Most of the information in this entry comes from Murray W. Nicholson “Peasants in an Urban Society: The Irish Catholics in Victorian Toronto” from Gathering Place: Peoples and Neighbourhoods of Toronto, 1834-1945. ed Robert F Harney, Multicultural Historical Society of Ontario; Toronto, 1985.
I also drew heavily on Nicholson’s article found at this site.